Australian soprano Cheryl Barker has been responsible for some of the most exciting performances at English National Opera over the last few seasons, including the most impressive Madam Butterfly I have seen, as well as a searing Emilia Marty in Janacek's The Makropoulos Case, and a haunting Miss Jessel in Britten's The Turn of the Screw. Having recorded Butterfly for Chandos's Opera In English collection, as well as the same label's release of a live performance of The Makropoulos Case, Barker was a natural choice for an aria recital disc in the same series.
Barker's voice thrills in the theatre because it is very large with a great deal of vivid colour and a thrilling cut to it. Nevertheless, she is not a dramatic soprano, but a heavy lyric with plenty of spinto reserves which allow her repertoire to extend into the likes of Tosca, the Janacek and Tchaikovsky's Lisa. In the studio however, deprived of the visceral thrill of such a voice experienced live, a certain lack of conventional beauty becomes apparent, which doesn't matter at all in the arias generally tackled by larger scale voices, but which does detract somewhat from the excerpts from Strauss's Arabella where we are used to loveliness as opposed to assertiveness, and possibly Cilea's Adrianna Lecouvreur and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci which want for a little more morbidezza and Italianate phrasing.
Two of the best tracks on the disc are the arias from Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades. Barker has no difficulty finding the legato in the face of such syllabic setting at low tessitura in the first part of 'Oh why am I so tearful', and she phrases very naturally, connecting lines through the breaths to give a great sense of momentum and logical, consequent thoughts. She dominates the second section easily where the higher set vocal arcs show her off to her best advantage. Barker brings similar qualities to the second aria, 'It's nearly midnight now', in which she sustains Lisa's lament for her fate throughout the whole scene with impressive intensity.
Barker is very effective in 'A Bargain and a Prayer' from Jake Heggie's The End of the Affair, an opera in which she created the role of Sarah at its premiere in San Francisco in 2004. The almost Mussorgskian scale of the piece suits Barker's vocal weight, and the tense situation in which Sarah finds herself plays to the singer's interpretative strengths as she resolves to renounce her lover in the face of what she believes is a sign from God.
Another rarity, 'How can I explain to you' from Malcolm Williamson's The Violins of Saint-Jacques is similarly successful. Describing a life on a tropical island interrupted by volcanic disaster, Barker spins a subtlely inflected legato line over the orchestra, allowing the changes in instrumental textures to do the work in terms of painting the text, which the London Philharmonic Orchestra under David Parry do to great effect.
According to the literature supplied with the disc, the genesis of the Opera In English label came about as a response to Reginald Goodall's famous Ring Cycle at English National Opera, which prompted Sir Peter Moores to remark that 'nothing speaks to the heart so directly as hearing the drama of opera expressed in your own language.' With this as its key raison d'être then, any singer recording for the label is going to have his or her diction subjected to closer scrutiny than is usually the case. Barker comes off reasonably well in this regard. One cannot say that every single word or line is distinct, but certainly enough of it is understandable for the less clear moments not to matter. One gets a sense, however, that the pressure to enunciate with upmost clarity has had, occasionally, a slightly negative impact on the performances. A readiness to sacrifice tonal beauty, or musical line, for the sake of text and meaning is often admirable in opera, but there are moments on this disc when a happy medium might have better served the overall presentation of an aria. The Italian arias in particular suffer from a slight lack of poise and feel unidiomatic partly because of the way the words are handled.
In the face of Barker's full-blooded vocalism however, such concerns do not significantly mar the release, and it is a pleasure to have her remarkable talents represented on a recital disc. One of the disc's major positive points is the way it combines familiar and lesser known repertoire. Baritone William Dazeley and soprano Gillian Keith provide excellent support in the ensemble numbers, and the luxury accompaniment from the orchestra, under Parry's singer-friendly yet spirited direction helps to create an overall impression of high quality.
By John Woods